Monday, April 30, 2007

17th Century, Meet 21st Century:

I've been making some hospital visits lately, and using a somewhat bulky portable PC on the hospital's Guest network. Hospital rooms are crowded, and there's that all-too-frequent moment when I have to unwind myself out of a chair, but only after figuring out what to do temporarily with the laptop that's in my way.

Today I did much better. You know those tray tables they have in every hospital, adjustable in height? Well the victim patient isn't always using the tray table. I raised it to its highest height, about four feet, lined it up against the wall, and stood before it, happily mousing and typing. I found it easy to just stop and move away as needed, and it was just as easy to step up to the high table and resume computering. Many physical therapists will tell you that standing decently is better for you than sitting, anyway. And in the distant past, white collar workers used to do just as I did, standing at a high desk to do their accounts. I felt much in touch with the past, and quite comfortable.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Great Troubleshooting:

Early in my software career I was given the task of maintining the home-grown oprating system for a company that provided computer services to many companies. Our computers tended to crash every two to four hours. The most important part of my job was to analyze these crashes fast, try to see what caused them, and get the computers up again. Every minute was critical in terms of lost income and customer dissatisfaction.

Sixteen months later I left that assignment for another one at the same company. When I left, the computers stayed up at least eight days at a time without crashing. In those sixteen months I had done other assignments, but I had spent hours and hours reading the operating system code, looking for problems, verifying and fixing them. This was a rare, highly productive experience, and until a few days ago I thought it was primarily my cleverness and stick-to-itiveness that yielded such rich rewards..

But suddenly, I knew better.

I owed my great success to the company's willingness to give me months to find bugs they never imagined they had. They never worried that they might waste the next month, while I found nothing of value to fix. In the modern computer world, I think such an attitude is unthinkable. Imagine my manager telling the VP of operations she wants to let me keep looking for OS problems for another two months.
"To do what?"
"Maybe he'll find an impoortant reliability problem."
"What problem? I bet the only thing is, our disk drives are lousy. Tell him to write a Ruby development environment instead."
"Let him look, you'll never know if there's another big bug in the OS unless he finds it."
"Tell me what he's going to find that 's worth eight weeks of his salary."
"I don't know."

And that's how it would go. But the company I worked for in 1969 was different. They had no idea how to control money.They ran up debts at a startling rate. They had dozens of different ways to waste money, I was just static in the overall noise. So I was left alone to make their basic product reliable. Lucky me.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A formal Experiment:

When I was twelve, my father took me to a science fair at a local college. One event was held in a large hall, about fifteen seats wide and maybe forty seats deep. The room’s floor angled up so that those in the back could see well. We sat in the front, where the ceiling was high above us.

The college students giving this experiment explained that they were going to show how you ignite iron filings from a relatively cool flame. They had a large flower pot with, they explained, iron filings and sulphur powder. They would use an ordinary match to light a magnesium fuse. The fuse would then light the iron and sulphur, and those would burn together.

They did this. An awesome, dense, yellow cloud ascended from the pot to the ceiling and drifted to the back of the room. As it approached the back, those in the back quickly exited the room. The cloud began to fill the whole room, and the awful rotten egg smell drove us all out; not, however before we looked around for the jokester experimenters. They were nowhere to be found.

That part of the science building was closed off for the rest of the evening.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Teenage Rock Hound:

In my youth – even before I was a teenager – I got very interested in collecting rocks. There are extremely different kinds of rock collectors, so let me clarify that my goal was to identify kinds of rocks and collect contrasting samples. I had a collection that I enjoyed, including some stones with naturally inlaid garnets, and an incredibly light piece of crumbly pumice.

Most of my rocks came from Long Island in the 1950’s. There wasn’t an enormous variety there, I believe. I was thinking about this today as I walked past a property landscaped in rocks. Thousands of rocks made a two-foot swath next to a long sidewalk, in all colors, shapes, and states of weathering. How I would have loved to pore over this ‘scape when I was a rock hound!

Which brings me to today’s point. Landscaping with rocks is, I think, a lot more common, and acceptable, than it used to be.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lost the Valet:

In 1985, during a visit to Detroit, I handed a rental car over to Valet Parking and it was stolen in less than a minute. I blogged about this before, but I mention it now because I had a sort of “opposite” experience yesterday. I handed my car over to a valet parking operation, and then it took quite a while for them to give my car back to me. Because, you see, they lost the valet. Let me explain.

To get my car back, I handed my ticket to the valet. He took the keys and walked off to my car, which was perfectly visible about a hundred feet away. My mind wandered, and I failed to notice that he walked on past it, into an enormous parking garage. After awhile I asked one of the other valets, “I handed over my ticket; that's my car over there; when am I going to get it back?” Well, they realized what had happened, and they went off into the parking garage to spy out my key-carrying valet. Eventually one of them drove my car around and handed it over to me.

“You were lucky,” he said, “that guy can't drive a stick shift anyway.”

Monday, April 23, 2007

Blocking Out:

Many years ago I played lunchtime basketball at work. Some of the guys operated a forklift at work, and they made a basketball basket with a backboard, that they could attach to the forklift and raise to the appropriate height. And by the way, that meant there was no pole right under the basket, fewer foot and ankle injuries.

Everyone acknowledged that one player I'll call John was a high scorer. John was picked early when choosing sides. He was six feet tall and fast, but he was teased mercilessly for his miserable outside shooting. After a few weeks I realized why John was a good scorer, and next time I played against him, I begged to be allowed to guard him. It was a hard sell. He was a little taller than I, and much faster, I was overweight and slow. But I got my wish. He scored two points that day, not his usual fourteen or twenty. Somehow, no one asked what I was doing. I wouldn't have told them, because I expected to be on John's team about half the time. I guarded him five or six times that season.

John absolutely hated having me guard him, but he was a good sport about it. He did not change his game for me, and that meant we won when I guarded him. Here's what I had figured out: when John got the ball outside, he usually threw it up within a few seconds. His outside shots almost always missed, but guess who got the rebounds? John was incredibly good at grabbing his own missed shots and following with a sure layup.

I made no attempt to block his shots, or to keep him from getting the ball when he was outside. All I tried to do was block him out after his shot. (And I'll confess, some of those were moving blocks.) I never delayed John more than a second, he used his speed to run around me. But a second was more than enough, he never got his own rebounds.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A good basketball statistic?

When I check the stats of a basketball game, I usually calculate a statistic that you'll never see in newspapers. That probably means it's a useless stat, but gee, it seems good to me. You can use my stat to see whether a player's offense has been productive. It's very simple: points per field goal try.

Generally, players need to consistently score about 1.0,and players who do 1.25 and better are an offensive force. My stat is good for 3-point shooters who hit nearly 40%, but it's also good for players who take many tough shots, missing a lot, but drawing fouls and making their foul shots. So: please think about my stat.

A personal experience led me to be aware of this statistic. I'll tell you about it tomorrow.

Friday, April 20, 2007


Living creatures know about spring. Both animal and vegetable. When I was young, when I sensed Spring, I couldn't do anything useful for a week, I had to just play and grow.

Spring officially began last March 21, but it's been weird here in the Northeast USA. Cold. Cold. Even when the high temperature of the day was high forties, it was only near the high for a few hours. Cold! Also gray and wet.

Yesterday I looked out at the morning. It was gray, cold and wet. But: I could hear many kinds of birds chirping, twittering and buzzing in the background. And I could smell it – greenery, growth, Spring! “Today, Spring begins!” I said to my wife. That was yesterday. Today, it's warm, mild and sunny. I was right.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Replace All!

I never click the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button at Google, because I'll only get one result, and it might be the wrong one. I think it's laziness to try to save time by using the Lucky button.

Similarly, I try, oh I try, to resist pressing the "Replace All" button that every text processor offers. I know I'm better off eyeballing each replacement individually, one item is going to surprise me and I won't want to replace it. I was thinking about this just recently when changing all the words in a document from "spicy" to another adjective ending in y. All I had to do was highlight spic, type my replacement, and hit the "replace all" button, to do 37 replacements at once. What could go wrong?

Did you know that you can find the letters 'spic' in the word suspicion? And in lots of other words, too. Despicable.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Year 2007 Eastern Daylight Time Problem:

When we switched to Eastern Daylight Time earlier than usual this year, many computer systems weren’t ready for the change, right? A lot of systems had to be changed manually, but that didn’t cause any serious problems, right? And that proves that the immense effort to plan for the “Year 2000” problem was a waste of time, right?

Those are definitely not my sentiments. Although the money spent on finding Year-2000 problems meant that people had less to spend on developers like me, I still thought it was worth the effort to fix problems before they happened. I also believe that there WERE many problems with the time change this year, and that it would have been worth making more effort to avoid them. (The best way would have been not to change the date for starting daylight saving.) And I'll bet Cody Webb agrees with me.

Cody was arrested for making a bomb threat to his highschool, and served twelve days in jail, even though his voice sounded different from the recorded call. His principal pronounced him a criminal, and of course she didn't believe his protestations of innocence, they had to be lies, he was a criminal. The critical evidence: his phone was the only one to call the school at the time of the bomb threat. Until someone realized they hadn't corrected for the change to EDT, which (the news story is a little unclear) had apparently been made to the call-logging system but not the school clocks, or vice versa. All charges against poor Cody Webb have been dropped. Here's the news story. It's worth a lot of effort to keep computers from confusing people due to time changes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A is for Any:

When my father entered law school at Columbia, the students gambled a lot. They held parties in their rooms at which quite a bit of money exchanged hands. After a while there was an armed robbery. The university was horrified that this loose dough had attracted robbers with guns, and it was declared that there would be no more gambling. But lawschoolers are competitive. Evenings, they turned to playing Guggenheim. Here's how to play. You may know this game by another name, “Categories.” In short, you have to think of words that begin with specific letters and fit certain categories, and you score high if you choose words that nobody else thinks of.

On the evening in question, one category was “words ending in A N Y”, and one of the starting letters was A. My father thought of a word beginning in A and ending in ANY, and he proudly wrote it down: “any”. None of the other eight players thought of this word. When time was up, they shared their words and scored the round. There was a furious argument about “any”, and eventually it was disallowed. (If you can't imagine why, my father would have loved you. The category is for words that begin with A, and end in ANY; that implies they begin with a different A than the A in 'any', don't you get it?)

Are you wondering how I came to know about this argument? Do you suspect that when I reached my sixteenth birthday or so, my father took me out to the middle of the Ashokan Reservoir in a boat and revealed the story to me, along with other great secrets of manhood? Well, no. Here's what happened: whenever my father got together with his friends from law school, the argument started up again. I heard both sides of this argument many times. My father never gave up trying to prove the obvious, that he had been right.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Viola Joe's Girlfriend:

In 1960 and 1961 I played first bassoon in a community orchestra in Manhattan. I met Joe, one of the violists there, and we became good casual friends. Joe liked to talk about his current girlfriend. (I think he had about five different girlfriends while we were in the orchestra together.) The last time he chose this topic with me, he had just started dating a new girl from the Bronx. He assured me that they hit it off really well, the girl looked fantastic, they were going to have some great dates together. “Joe,” I asked, “is her name Beverly Milkman?”

Joe looked at me like he'd been shot. He was dazed, embarrassed. Finally he said, “Yes, how did you know?”
“I just guessed,” I replied. It was a most remarkable guess, and I savored it. There were of course a lot of women living in the Bronx who were the right age – about 20 – and the correct religion – Joe dated only Jewish – but I knew very few of them. Now I had one more string to my bow, and that's how I managed my inspired guess.

Joe was partial to extremely short women. He always remarked on this when he was dating a short gal, and he reacted very positively to the shortest females in the orchestra. I knew Beverly Milkman was the right age, religion, and height: 4' 10”. And so ...

(Beverly, I apologize for using your real name in this blog item; my story just wouldn't be as good without it. I know you're out there, I'd love to get an email from you, I'm tobyr21 at gmail.)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Burning Imus:

I've got a tough piece to write here, because my wife and daughter strongly disagree with me. Please withhold judgment while I try to make my point.

The question in the Imus vs. Rutgers case is whether a person on the radio should be able to make an abominably stupid remark, make a heartfelt apology, and move on. In this case the answer is no, he has to be severely punished. This case will have a chilling effect on radio, TV, newspaper reporting and entertainment venues in general. We'll all lose because of the pablum we're getting when people are more afraid to make a tough remark and lose their jobs.

The good news about the Imus case is that everybody in the public eye now knows better than to say the exact three words that Imus said. The bad news is that no one knows what kind of shocking remark, or nasty witticism, or general comment it IS safe to make and keep your job. You may find that statement hard to believe, in which case I refer you to Randy Kennedy's opinion piece in the NY Times, april 15: Hey, that's (not) Funny. In this piece, he tries to explain what Imus did that was unacceptable, and it turns out that this isn't easy. In particular, Les Moonves, who congratulated the empire he works for, for sending a message by getting hard on Imus, works for a glass house empire. The same conglomerate also produces South Park, a thing created by two white guys whose program wallows in (acceptable!?) racial slurs.

Kennedy concludes that Imus's problem is trying to be serious. His show has serious commentary, serious guests. When he becomes a shock jock for a moment, people are confused. (I know YOU'RE not confused, and I'M not confused; but “people” are confused.) If you like this distinction, please note that it's the OPPOSITE of an established reason for deciding a first amendment case. (The Imus case is NOT a first amendment case, he works for a skittish business.) In the law, an utterance is protected if it has redeeming social merit. If Imus were a shock jock all the time, he would have practically no social merit, and his utterance would have less legal protection; but the way Randy Kennedy works it out, he has less protection BECAUSE he has social merit. I'm sure every TV reporter will easily understand how to apply this reasoning.

Please try to imagine yourself a radio or TV host, trying to avoid getting fired the way Imus was for anything you say on your program. Do you know exactly what to avoid? No. Do you know how to play it safe? Yes. Or sort of.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Poison Ivy:

This is another reminiscence from my summer at Narrowsburg, NY (see last March 21). Late in the summer, I took another counselor on a date on our day off. We walked into Narrowsburg and admired the considerable suspension bridge across the river. What really fascinated me about this brdge was the field next to it, about the size of a football field. It was surrounded by a high mesh fence, except for an opening about fifteen feet wide. You could easily walk in and run around on this field.

But you shouldn't, because it was completely carpeted in poison ivy. I pointed this out to my date, and she said, "Really! I've never gotten poison ivy, I believe I'm immune." And before I could explain that you can lose your immunity at any time, she kicked off her sandals and ran barefoot all over that field for nearly five minutes.

In case you're wondering, I'm very good at identifying PI. If I say it's poison ivy, it IS poison ivy. And no, she didn't get a rash. Amazing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A few stray words:

I want to use the web today to memorialize a word and a phrase. The word is something my father used instead of "wobbly": Vocklely. We sometimes had vocklely chairs, for instance. I suspect that right here, before your eyes, I'm spelling this word for the very first time. ("Vocklely" is probably a Germanic loan-word. It's pronounced "vockle - lee".)

The phrase is "landing zone," and it has a special meaning in our household. When I make a cup of coffee for my wife, I offer to serve it to her -- that is, I offer to place it on the kitchen table so she can drink it -- provided there's someplace nearby to set the cup down. Our kitchen table is a pretty busy place, so I often find myself saying, "Please make a landing zone for your coffee."

UPDATE: This entry has been corrected.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Geek’s gotta sew!

Many years ago, someone invented a gadget that would attach buttons to a shirt without any sewing. That pretty much ended any desire I might ever have to sew, a skill in which I lack all possible expertise. Just once, I really needed to sew something. How difficult can it be, I asked myself. I wish I’d made a list of all the things I did wrong (actually, more than THIRTY different kinds of mistakes), but I was too busy trying to finish to write them down. Sewing is indeed a sophisticated skill.

But times have changed, and now I do at least one sewing repair per year. Here’s why: There are three ways you can attach gadgets to a belt:
  1. So that they are in great danger of falling off.
  2. Using yet another gadget to “rivet” the object to your belt. (Here’s an example.)
  3. Using a pouch that attaches so securely to your belt, it’s just not going to fall off.

I’ve seen reviews of method (2) and such gadgets impress me, but I’ve never had the nerve to try them. I can’t understand why anyone goes for method (1), which usually means a simple clip-on to your belt. I’m sure I’d knock any clip-on off in a few days. But if you haunt the camera stores, you’ll see every form of appliance pouch, including some that have an integral belt loop. You run your belt through this loop and the pouch CAN’T POSSIBLY fall off the belt. When it’s new, anyway. Outside of a bathroom, anyway.

These pouches cost $10 to $20, so what do you do when the belt loop begins to crack or tear? The necessary sewing repairs will be invisible – between your pouch and your belt – an idea situation for the amateur sewer. I’ve done a number of sewing repairs, and I’ve extended the lives of my gadget-holders.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Slow down, brave Multitasker:

The New York Times recently published an article on multitasking, (“Slow down, brave Multitasker”, March 25). The article features pictures of clueless people using PDAs or music players while crossing streets and bicycling. The point of the article is that people are much worse at multitasking tha we like to think, maybe it should be disouraged. I found myself musing, “It's a pity the NYT doesn't believe in evolution.” Now let's face it: multitasking is a necessary skill in modern civilization. Studies show most people can't do it? Then encourage it! After a while, the only people left standing will be those who really can multitask. I'm talking survival of the fittest here, natural selection. Let's get it done.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

"Adult" content:

Why do we use the word "adult" to refer to the most childish material of interest to adults?

(Sorry I've been away for a few days. Regular posting resumes next Wednesday.)

Monday, April 02, 2007

Punctuation in Virginia:

Punctuation would be really useful in vanity license plates, for much better word play and clarity in expression. So I’m delighted to report a little progress: I’ve seen ampersands on plates in Virginia. (E.g.: KAY&TAD).

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Viacom Versus Google – the Big Risk:

Viacom is suing YouTube (that is, they're suing Google's deep pockets) for copyright infringements posted on YouTube. This is an interesting legal case, because you'll find people saying it's obvious that the DMCA protects YouTube, and you'll find people saying its obvious that the DMCA (plus the Napster and Grokster cases) nails YouTube to the wall.

The conventional wisdom is that Viacom, by taking down all these pieces of their video shows, is killing off the best advertising vehicle in history. And more conventional wisdom says that Google and Viacom will settle, with Google giving up a ton of change.

I'd like to point out something I haven't heard yet about this case. Google's deep pockets mean it could contest this case in court, possibly dragging it out five years or more. And Viacom (and indeed the entire movie and TV industries) are taking a terrible risk if there's a real lawsuit: Google may challenge the estimated value of the copyright violations. I believe the current estimation (used by Viacom) is $750 per violation, it could even be higher. But there's no proof of any such estimate. In fact it may be hard to prove there are any damages at all, with the benefits of violations accruing to Viacom in the form of free advertising that boosts sales. Viacom will lose the war if a court case decides that yes, there were punishable violations, but that Google does not owe one cent to make the violations good.

I'd dearly like to see Google challenge the idea that copyright violations of video on the web cost the copyright owner anything.